Revelation Trail: Surviving the frontier just got harder

If you woke up tomorrow morning to a zombie apocalypse, would you arm yourself with a gun or a sword? John Gibson, a professor and media engineer for the Electronic Media and Broadcasting department and Norse Media at Northern Kentucky University, says he would go with the gun.

Professor John Gibson is currently working on an independent feature-length film, “Revelation Trail,” a western-horror film.

He received his bachelor’s degree in history and master’s degree in communications from Murray State University. He keeps himself immersed in the film world by competing in the annual 48-Hour Film Festival and making other short films.

To what lengths would an individual go to survive a zombie outbreak? In “Revelation Trail,” a preacher and a lawman face work as one to face off the undead on the western frontier. This film works on many levels, exploring themes ranging from faith to responsibility. Both characters represent two different archetypes — a man of faith and a man of law. How will these roles affect how they battle the undead? This is only one of the themes the film deals with.

The preacher, who has, up until this point, spent his life preaching and speaking the word of God, must make a transition to a new world: a world overrun by zombies.

“You’re rotting and decaying and you’re coming at him and he’s gotta shoot you. You still look like a person,” Gibson said. “How do you rationalize that if you are somebody that’s got that much faith in this supreme being.”

The preacher goes from delivering the word to delivering the monsters.

“His justification is that these things are trapped, whatever they are,” Gibson said. “His whole thing is to deliver it on to be judged.”

To balance this out and give a different perspective, there is the lawman who focuses on justice instead of God. He has faith, but it is different than the preacher’s since he focuses more on maintaining order. In a world where rules no longer apply, how will he adopt those values?

“Do this, don’t do this, or else you’ll get thrown into jail,” Gibson said about the lawman’s perspective. “What good’s that whenever people are eating each other?”

Gibson started making films in junior high school where he experimented with stop-motion films involving G.I. Joe figures and clay. Any way that Gibson could relate film to what he was working on in school he did.

Gibson became a serious filmmaker in college when he joined a film club showcasing his projects to audiences of 75 to 150. Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” is the film that opened the way for a different perspective on film making for Gibson.

“You had this stylized, non-linear approach to telling the story,” Gibson said. “Up to that point I couldn’t think of anything that had done that before. It was a movie that got me thinking differently about film.”

The idea for “Revelation Trail” originated with a phone call from Blake Armstrong, a friend of Gibson’s. Armstrong serves as the film’s executive producer and post-production supervisor. The film has elements from western and zombie generes.

“It is a survival story. It’s western and it does have the horror element to it as well,” Gibson said. “Our primary focus even with the web series has been western first, horror second. And we’ve also tried to be very specific to not say that it’s a zombie film or a zombie-western.”

Daniel Van Thomas, who plays the role of the preacher and co-writer for “Revalation Trail,” elaborates on other issues that are dealt with throughout the film.

“We explore what defines someone as human, the process of fear mongering, the hive mind, the fragility of civilization — lots of questions we’re presenting in between gunfights and head-shots.”

Making a film isn’t easy. It involves many levels of responsibilities. The current script for “Revelation Trail” went through seven drafts. Once the writing is finished, Gibson says it’s important to present the script to what he calls “your worst critic” so they can tell you what they think of it. From there you conduct an intensive search for the right cast and crew.

Contributed photo.
Cast and crew work to get ready to shoot part of Revelation Trail.

“The director may be the captain of the ship, but the captain of the ship is only as good as the guys in the engine room,” Gibson said.

Gibson has had to wear multiple hats while bringing this film to fruition. He has done many things, ranging from co-writing the script to budget-planning, co-producing and finding locations for shooting.

Another key aspect of filmmaking is funding. The film is currently in pre-production in want of an investor. Film company Living End Productions, who is producing the film, will be taking the next two to three months to conduct fundraising.

“I will say without a doubt this is the part I hate the most,” Gibson said. “I’ve got a core cast, I’ve got a dedicated crew and I’ve got so many things in place except for the funding.”

His Los Angeles crew will be scouting out studios while his East Coast crew will be seeking individual investors. “Revelation Trail” is considered a micro-budget feature film.

Gibson believes that characters and the story are the keys to making a successful horror film. It’s also the unexpected that proves to be scary, or the idea of not quite knowing what is next. Gibson uses the 1979 film “Alien” as an example.

“I mean my gosh, what makes for a great horror film there,” Gibson said. “It’s not seeing the monster the whole time, it’s knowing that the monster can be right around the corner any time.”

Gibson also enjoys the bloodier side of horror films.

“But let’s face it, a zombie getting its head blown off is pretty awesome too,” Gibson said. “I definitely do enjoy me some good ol’-fashioned, human-on-zombie violence and everything else, but I do think the character and the plot are the core to making a good horror film.”

Thomas believes there is an unspoken agreement made with the audience and that it is the role of the filmmaker to fulfill that agreement.

“The audience wants to have their sense of security taken away, they want uncertainty or suspense or bloodshed — or all of it. There’s no shame in delivering those things,” Thomas said. “I feel it can help if the audience is invested in the characters — lets them experience the whole thing a little more vicariously.”

Thomas’ responsibility is to bring the character of the preacher to the screen. Every actor is different; they have their own method of preparation and working through a role.

“The process is this: if it works, use it. I believe in honesty and disclosure in performance,” Thomas said. “I try to bring some sense of history, the sense of something lived-in, to the work. The challenge is forgetting everything you’ve learned so that people don’t see the strings in the puppet show and the reward is when people find the performance worth their time.”

Gibson says to expect the unexpected when you begin the filming process. You have to be prepared for issues to arise and be prepared to think creatively when it comes to problem-solving.

Using the talent of current and alumni students from NKU, “Revelation Trail” expanded to a web-based series that focuses on characters that are mentioned in the movie and are expanded through the series titled “Lilith’s Story.”

Set in 1905 in an old western town, “Lilith’s Story” focuses on a little girl and her family and what they went through during the zombie outbreak. The concept for the web series originated with Chas Pangburn, a senior at NKU.

“Revelation Trail” is ultimately a story about the struggle between external and internal forces. The film is a character-driven movie where their choices, values and priorities affect how they will or will not survive during the zombie crisis.

For more information you can visit the “Revelation Trail” web site at and visit their fanpage on Facebook at Gibson wants to make a film that involves as many locals as possible.

“We’re all fairly small-time trying do something that’s big-time,” Gibson said. “I want people to know that we are going to make this film. That’s all there is to it. We may only have these three trailers that are out there right now and a story, but the passion that’s behind this project, it will get done.”

Story by Shawn Buckenmeyer